When we first planned this course, it was designed to highlight the park and to give runners a chance to see how beautiful it was if they had never been there before. Being on Valentine’s Day weekend, we also centered much of the swag around that notion of love as well. In rescheduling this race after the ice storm canceled our original plans, we had a chance to reevaluate our course and found a way to tell a different love story; not one of falling in love with the park, but of the love/hate relationship runners share with the trails.
This course is not designed to hurt you, but to make you feel every emotion a runner will go through. There will be breathtaking highs and fits of joy, countered by agonizing moments of groaning displeasure. The climbs are difficult, the descents are technical, the views are amazing, and the experience is your journey through the emotional mind you’re stuck with on a long and arduous run.
Mile 0.0 – 1.75
The Start line is always a place of mixed emotions, and this one will be no different. We kept our original permit of only 50 runners for this reschedule so there will be an intimate and exclusive vibe to this race. Perfect for making new trail friends, but also worrisome for not being able to drift into a crowd if your nerves begin to play havoc with your confidence.
When you begin, the initial adrenaline rush will be your first challenge. In less than a .25 mile you’ll begin the first major climb of the course up the Wolf’s Rock Trail. If you rush this climb, you will burn the energy needed later in the race. Take it slow, get to know the technicality the mountain is presenting, and understand what you’ll be up against for the next few hours.
When you crest this climb at just under a mile, make sure you find your breath before you begin to run as you head left on the ridgeline toward your first sightseeing opportunity. Glance into the blossoming woods, check out the distant horizon through the trees, or just watch your feet as you make your way into the rock gardens that line this course. Then, enjoy your run. You’ll have close to a mile from the moment you crest the first climb to find your footing moving at a faster pace as you pass along this rolling section.
**Wolf’s Rock** – The first major sightseeing opportunity will be just to the right of the course. While beautiful, these rocky outcroppings can be deadly and are not to be messed with so the course does not go out onto any of them. But please, take a moment to briefly step of the course and create a memory. These views are gorgeous and are the reason we do crazy things like run 14 miles in mountainous terrain.
With the renewed vigor of young love after taking the time to peak out over Wolf’s Rock and enjoying the brief respite of flats and a downhill section, this course will present its next challenge – Hanging Rock.
From the moment you turn right off of the Wolf’s Rock trail onto Hanging Rock, you begin to feel a change in the course’s demeanor. What was a single track, wooded area, becomes a gravel road heading up. After the first initial climb levels out, it offers your first view of the peak of Hanging Rock and you’ll begin to wonder, “Am I going all the way up there?”. Yes. Yes, you are. And you’ll be getting up there very steeply and in under a mile.
Once the gravel road ends at the base of Hanging Rock, the climb begins. In total, it’s barely .3 miles from the base of the climb to the peak, but you will have to earn every step. Take your time. Breathe. You will reach the peak.
**Hanging Rock** – The second major sightseeing opportunity gives the park its name. Hanging Rock is worthy of this honor as the vast mountainous views are instantly iconic in NC backcountry trail life. The course turns around just before the outcropping, but again, feel free to walk out and catch your breath in one of the most grandiose displays of nature you’ll see in the area.
The descent from Hanging Rock is not to be taken lightly. As steep as it was to summit this peak, it is just as steep to descend back to the gravel road. POWER HIKING IS ADVISED TO ALL RUNNERS WITHOUT HIGH LEVELS OF TECHNICAL DOWNHILL EXPERIENCE!! Nature does not care if you get hurt, and this course will not care if you fall and break anything. Take care of yourself when you are in a position that we cannot take care of you.
After you’ve descended from Hanging Rock, prepare to enjoy the next 1.5 miles of relatively easy going. Any of you familiar with running at Crowders Mountain will have flashbacks of running down the Tower trail as you make your way toward the Lake trail section. If you are wanting to gain a little time or just let out some energy, this will be your first prime section of the course. After enjoying the rolling trail sweeping directly to the side of the lake, you’ll make a right turn onto Moore’s Wall trail, and will find your first aid station. It will be another 5 miles before the next aid station. Take advantage and refill your water bottles and bladders!
**Lake Dam** – The third major sightseeing opportunity will be the dam constructed for the lake. You will pass right by the base of this seemingly innocuous but mesmerizing feature that will make you want to stop and catch your breath. If your heart is racing, or you feel like the course is getting the better of you early on, take a moment here. Remember why we run in the woods.
The climb up Moore’s wall is grueling. At 1.25 mile long, there are only a few brief respites where you are not going up. It will present you a few moments in which you will begin to think it’s easy and I’m exaggerating. Then it will quickly remind you of this very sentence in which I’m telling you to take your time and breathe through it. Unless you are well trained in power hiking up long climbs, expect to lose some time here.
As the third major climb, this will also begin to let in the doubt and frustration that can so often plague our minds during a run – the love/hate relationship will begin to shine here. The “Why am I doing this?” line of questioning we slam ourselves with will be hard to drone out as you slowly make this climb, but once you crest and hit the ridgeline, you’ll have your answers.
At roughly 5.8 miles in, you’ll make a left onto the ridgeline of Moore’s Wall trail. A nice rocky outcropping will be just to your left and will give you a view of the Wolf’s Rock Ridgeline you were at just a few miles before. Utilize this view to reenergize you and wash out those negative thoughts.
Now, this ridgeline is runnable, but I encourage a strong power hike. You’ve just finished your third of four major climbs, and this is a tight and technical single track with plenty of toe crunchers looking to take you down. Help your body out by hiking out this section until you reach the descent. You may lose a minute or two here, but it will be worth it on the back-end when you’re able to run the last section of the race to make the time back up.
The descent from Moore’s Wall begins at mile 6.5. It is technical but gradually becomes more runnable after the first .25 mile. Your body will need to keep gravity from gaining control of your speed here, so monitor how fast you’re going. You can run this, but only if you can control yourself.
The halfway point can feel great, and after the grueling experience of tackling those three major climbs, this soft pack gradual uphill will be reinvigorating. Tory’s Den Trail section is the primary out and back on this course to highlight one of the trails less used at the park. This mainly soft pack and pine strewn trail will be an easy-going section for the first few miles as you wade your way through the lightly populated and densely packed forest.
Take advantage of this section as there is a slight climb, but then a near-continuous descent afterward. At mile 9.25, you’ll reach your second aid station at the trailhead for Tory’s Falls. Enjoy a break and conversation now, or when you return in .4 miles as you will briefly carry on down the trail to the waterfall before returning.
**Tory’s Waterfall** – Fourth major sightseeing opportunity. The trail will turn around again right before the rocky outcropping that lets you breathe in the waterfall and take in the crushing sound of water breaking against the rocks below. My suggestion, grab a snack from the aid station and take it the .2 miles down to the waterfall and enjoy it there before returning. It’s a simple beauty, but it’ll be worth remembering.
After leaving the aid station on your way back, you’re going to remember the gradual 1.5 mile downhill section that got you to where you were, and how you now have to hike up it. It’s ok. This is the last major climb of the course and, in my opinion, the easiest. Much of it is gradual and over easy terrain. And if you need a pick-me-up, at around 10.3 miles in, you’ll see an opening to your left where Moore’s wall is looking ominously down on your position. You conquered that wall already, and Hanging Rock, and Wolf’s Rock. Remember this, and you’ll conquer the last .8 miles of the climb until the soft pack and pine-strewn trail return to guide you back downhill.
You’ve all but done it. You’ve made it back to the base of Moore’s Wall Loop Trail and can now enjoy the warm embrace of the green tunnel of Magnolia trees and the spring water running to the side of the trail that feeds them. This section is runnable and beautiful. You’ll pass by your friends at the aid station from mile 4.5 at just about mile 13 for one last pick me up if needed.
Don’t close your eyes to this section of the course, though. It may not have the peaks you conquered before, but it will show you a simple beauty that will make you want to take off your shoes and dip your toes into the cool water. And when you’re done enjoying the Magnolias, you will find yourself coming back out around the lake, the finish line just a short way away.